AUSTIN (KXAN) — A decade after Texas neurosurgeon Dr. Christopher Duntsch’s path of destruction began, a panel of journalists and experts attempted to answer the question: “10 years after ‘Dr. Death’ are patients any safer from bad doctors?”
An ongoing series of KXAN investigations found the answer appears to be no in rare instances when doctors harm patients.
“Ten years ago, one of the most notoriously bad doctors in Texas left a trail of maimed and dead patients in a string of Dallas hospitals,” Laura Beil, the host of the “Dr. Death” podcast, said in a description of the panel, which took place last Saturday at the Hilton in downtown Austin. Her podcast, which was turned into a Peacock miniseries with the same name, was heard by an estimated 60 million listeners.
“Hospitals dealt with their problem neurosurgeon by making him someone else’s problem,” Beil added. “Administrators failed to report him, and the state medical board seemed slow to respond to desperate pleas from doctors and patients to revoke his license.”
Beil invited KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant to discuss his ongoing “Still Practicing” investigations, as part of a panel she moderated, at the Association of Health Care Journalists conference. Among the experts participating: Medical malpractice attorney Kay Van Wey, who represented Duntsch’s victims in court, Ware Wendell with Texas Watch and Lisa Robin, the chief advocacy officer with the Federation of State Medical Boards.
KXAN previously interviewed both Wey and Wendell as part of our ongoing series.
“Five years after ‘Dr. Death’ was sentenced to life in prison, we wanted to revisit this case and look at where the system is today,” Grant told journalists and health care experts from across the country. “And, what we found, is the Texas Medical Board is allowing doctors to practice that it itself deemed to be a danger to the public.”
“Thank you for coming and sharing your terrific work!” Beil tweeted Grant after the presentation.
“Your presentation was excellent,” Wey tweeted at Grant. “I think we all know that patients are no safer now. We are fighting hard for reform….as if our lives depend on it. Oh that’s right. They do!”
Five years ago, Duntsch was sentenced to life in prison. He declined multiple requests for comment.
The “only reason” Duntsch didn’t injure more people — he left more than 30 patients maimed or dead due to botched spinal surgeries — was because he “didn’t have any more patients” to operate on, Wey concluded.
Both Wey and Wendell argue there is little justice for patients who are harmed by physicians or hospitals. That’s because, in Texas, there’s a $250,000 medical malpractice cap on noneconomic damages and hospitals are effectively “lawsuit proof,” Wey said, even if they are “grossly negligent.” She says patients have to prove “malice” without access to evidence, since physician records, including complaints, held by the National Practitioner Data Bank are sealed, even in medical malpractice lawsuits.
By law, hospitals are required to report dangerous doctors to the NPDB and TMB. Wey argued there is “no teeth” to that because there is “no appetite” to penalize hospitals that “willfully skirt the law.” She pointed out hospitals today still suspend doctors for less than 30 days to get around the NPDB reporting requirement, which is what happened with Duntsch, who was never reported to the NPDB, she said.
While the NPDB is sealed to patients, and KXAN discovered some doctor disciplinary records kept secret by the TMB, there are other, free resources patients can use to research their doctors ahead of time.
“We need to be our own advocate when selecting a physician,” said Robin, who has been with the FSMB for nearly three decades.
The nonprofit organization represents all state medical boards in the country. It shares best practices and policies and alerts medical boards to disciplinary actions in other states. The organization runs the largest, and only, database of all licensed physicians in the country, which includes disciplinary actions and where physicians are licensed to practice.
“A Yelp review would certainly not be how I would want to choose my physician,” said Robin. “I would want to make sure there was nothing in his background that would bring pause.”
Last year, lawmakers approved Texas to join the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which began in March. The agreement, currently between 29 states, the District of Columbia and the Territory of Guam, gives qualifying physicians who wish to practice in multiple states “faster pathway” to obtaining a license, according to the IMLC.
Asked to give her thoughts on what KXAN’s investigations revealed, Robin said the IMLC will help prevent physicians with problem pasts from coming to Texas.
“I think that the Compact is wonderful because it does allow states to share information about investigations or other things,” she said. “It allows states to do joint investigations if there is any sort of problem. It is a very high bar to be able to take advantage of the Compact.”
Prior to COVID-19, Wendell said preventable medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the country — behind heart disease and cancer. Following KXAN’s reporting, he is now pushing for legislation that would make the TMB more transparent and ensure bad doctors aren’t allowed to keep practicing.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “We have a big problem. There’s red lights blinking left and right.”